EUGENE - When 50 of the 290 elementary students at Cole County R-1 Schools head home for the weekend, tucked inside their backpacks is enough food for the next seven meals.
A small jar of peanut butter, a couple individual-sized fruit cups, two cans of pre-made pasta meals, a granola bar, flavored milk and cereal are regulars in these Buddy Packs, supported through the Central Missouri Food Bank.
"I can deal with going to bed hungry, but I couldn't imagine my kids going to bed hungry," said Tracy Reames, a mother of two. "The Buddy Pack has saved these kids a couple of times" - especially when she was out of work.
The Buddy Pack program at the Eugene school began about a year ago with 29 students.
The school organizers - Counselor Emma Dixon and Secretary Lora Soltvedt - knew of six more students who could really benefit. So, they reached out to the Eugene community to provide the equivalent for those additional students.
A local church and power company contributed enough that students also were sent home for the summer with some food and hygiene products.
"We're grateful for the giving people in our community," said Jean Torter, grandmother of two. "I don't know how to say how much we appreciate it.
"The Buddy Packs have been a lifesaver, really."
Volunteers from the Eugene school are able to pick up the weekly, presorted food packs from the food bank's distribution site in Jefferson City. In 2014, nearly 1,900 pounds of food has been distributed to Eugene students so far.
Despite rising food costs, the Buddy Packs program continues with the support of private donors, fundraising events, churches and United Way, said Michelle Bayer, southern regional coordinator.
The money raised in Cole County stays there, she said. So the number of children reached by the program is limited only by community support.
Last week, nearly 7,000 students in the food bank's 32-county region received a Buddy Pack.
"We still don't reach every child we'd like to," Bayer said.
Through its resources and partners, the food bank averages buying 15 pounds of food per $1 donated, she said. For the Buddy Pack program, that ratio is a little less.
Products generally are a bit more expensive, because packaging is smaller and easy to open, Bayer said.
About 20 Cole County schools and programs are served by the Buddy Pack program.
The idea is simple: provide a source of reliable nutrition for children who are at-risk of hunger over the weekend.
At Eugene, distribution is discrete.
Parents of children identified by staff received a letter explaining the program. They were given the choice whether their child would participate.
"Only a few chose not to accept and no one's been offended," Soltvedt said.
Even students recognize the benefit of the program.
An eighth-grade student asked her classmates to donate food to the Buddy Pack program this fall in lieu of gifts.
"That's awesome," Dixon said.
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